Married couples have been operating businesses together for many generations. Society’s humble beginnings relied on the mom-and-pop mercantile, drug store and family farms. Traditionally the wife was the bookkeeper while the husband did the manual labor.
Though the stereotypical roles are no longer relevant, husband-and-wife owned and operated businesses have evolved as a desirable and successful business model.
Couples benefit from some unique advantages when deciding to run a business together.
The Relationship is Established and Trust is Built
Spouses have the unique benefit of already having a long-term relationship. They have created countless memories and shared secrets and dreams. From this comes invaluable trust. “The couple bond is a significant element in the success of entrepreneurial businesses,” says psychologist and business consultant Kathy Marshack in her book Entrepreneurial Couples. Certainly a distillery can hire a head distiller or tasting room manager and build a strong relationship over time. But the built-in love and trust between husband and wife can provide an early advantage in starting a new business.
Case Study: Linda and Curt Basina, Copper Crow Distillery, Bayfield, WI
Linda and Curt have a long history together. Linda’s mother and Curt’s dad grew up on the Indian reservation together. Both families are members of the Redcliff Band Lake Superior Chippewa Indians.
As children, Linda was best friends with Curt’s sister and Curt was best friends with Linda’s brother. After falling in love in high school, they have now been married 39 years.
At Copper Crow Curt runs the distillery during the week while Linda takes care of the bookkeeping and marketing and works in the tasting room on weekends.
As is common with husband-and-wife owned distilleries, weekends are spent together, but at work. Curt says, “Our tasting room is only open on weekends, so when we’re open it doesn’t allow us an opportunity to go on a date night or anything like that… it is the only opportunity we get to be together.”
“I think we work real well together… always have,” Curt says. “She has her tasks that she takes care of and I have my tasks that I take care of. Communication plays a big part. We know for sure what is expected of each other.”
Communication Styles Are Understood
A husband and wife intimately know one another’s communication style and have had practice speaking a language the other person can hear and understand. In this day and age of texting, emails, Zoom meetings and direct conversations with customers, strong communication skills are key. Lin Grensing-Pophal, author of Human Resource Essentials says, “Communication is important in any business. Businesses that are committed to open and honest two-way communication can readily meet their communication and business goals — whether communicating with family or non-family members.”
Case Study: Erica and Jeff Droge, Dry Hills Distillery, Bozeman, MT
Erica believes, “Communication is the key to a successful business. Jeff and I are lucky in the fact that we sort of grew-up together, so we had this great foundation of communication prior to starting our business.”
She says it also helps that they separated the business into two large facets. She explains, “For example, he oversees production which is a direct tie-in with our farming operations and commercial sales, while I oversee our tasting room and local sales and do all the compliance and bookkeeping. Each of these areas depends strongly on each other.”
Jeff’s communication skills carry over into his tours at their distillery. “Jeff is the storyteller and he gives great tours and would ‘complain’ about farming to anyone that wanted to listen,” Erica says. A different type of communication is giving interviews or presentations, and Erica says she usually takes those on.
Erica concludes, “The best part about working with your spouse is that it isn’t always easy, but they are the first ones to give you grace, when sometimes you don’t give yourself that. We had really learned this with starting a family and having to navigate through this crazy time and I am thankful that we get to do this together.”
Preferred Roles Have Been Chosen
In every home someone takes on the role of chores, shopping for the household, cooking, fixing what’s broken. Perhaps all of these tasks are shared equally or divvied up. Over time a routine is established. Understanding and respecting one another’s preferred tasks, skills and strengths easily carries over to running a business together and deciding what job description each person will have.
Case Study: Vienna and Pete Barger, Southern Distilling Company, Statesville, NC
Vienna and Pete met in the parking lot of a Grateful Dead show in 1989. Vienna was playing a tambourine and Pete’s tie-dye caught her eye. They have been adventuring together ever since, now with three children in tow.
Vienna and Pete have very different work experiences they bring to their distillery. Pete is a trained mechanical engineer while Vienna was a public health social worker.
Vienna says, “We support each other’s strengths and complement each other’s weaknesses. Pete leads all activities related to our plant equipment and production operations. I lead our front-of-house and back office operations and focus on keeping everything on course.
We are both strong-minded, Aries-born people, however, with very different yet compatible personalities and approaches to our business.”
Vienna adds, “They say that ‘teamwork makes the dream work’… This is certainly true at our distillery, where we get the fantastic opportunity to work together on a daily basis, help each other to be the best we can be, and support our entire team in growing our company.”
Couple Have Ample Experience Setting Healthy Boundaries
Couples strive to understand and respect each other’s boundaries. Perhaps one person needs a little time to themselves first thing in the morning or a couple may set certain guidelines during disagreements. Spouses know these things about one another. Henry Cloud, author of Boundaries in Marriage explains, “Boundaries define us. They define what is me and what is not me. A boundary shows me where I end and someone else begins, leading me to a sense of ownership. Knowing what I am to own and take responsibility for gives me freedom.”
Case Study: Amy and Steve Bohner, Alchemy Distillery, Arcata, CA
Steve and I own and operate two businesses full time. We started Alchemy Construction in 1998 and added Alchemy Distillery in 2015.
For years we didn’t take vacations and were known to work months without a day off. In time we learned it isn’t healthy or productive to push that hard.
We committed to setting boundaries around how much we work. We adopted a mantra of “work hard, play hard” and we have found a balance of the two.
One important component of this is a weekly date night. We’ve done this consistently for over ten years and all of our friends and family know when it’s Wednesday it means date night! The only goal is a night with no obligations except spending time together.
We also make a concerted effort to maintain hobbies as a couple and as individuals. Steve has band practice twice a week while I periodically have book club or spend time with my girlfriends. We have discovered an added benefit of being in business together is that time off coincides!
Simply Being Married Is a Huge Part of Your Story
Whether it is a hand-crafted item on Etsy or a single barrel bourbon, consumers are increasingly seeking out unique items that have a story. A happily married couple hand-making spirits as their dream job? Now that’s an intriguing tale. In an article titled “Why branding as a family-owned business puts you ahead of the pack” for Forbes Magazine, Francois Botha explains there is a “warm and fuzz factor.” He writes that, “Family-owned businesses seem more stable, more customer-friendly, more approachable and more trustworthy. Trust equals sales, sales equal profitability. Tell the family story, take it to the bank.”
Case Study: Tia and Sean Edwards, Fresh Bourbon Distilling Co., Lexington, KY
Sean thinks having a story is just as important as what you do: “People want to know why you do something.” He elaborates, “That’s what a story does for your supporters; it gives them an insight on your ideas and visions for the brand. Highlighting why you started but also telling them where you want to go in the future.”
A big part of Sean and Tia’s story is allowing the customer to create their own bourbon experience. Tia would say she enjoyed bourbon, but in a cocktail would be her preference. As Sean recalls, “There is our aha moment. We realized the number of bourbon aficionados who were telling you how to drink their spirits, and forcing people to a neat experience, when maybe their taste was different. The market was screaming for a new bourbon experience. That’s why we created Fresh Bourbon — we wanted to create a new bourbon experience.”
Sean concludes “But as important as the story is, we are believers in the statement that the story will sell the first bottle, but what is in it will sell the second bottle.”
Customers show strong brand loyalty for small businesses that are locally owned and operated. Husband and wife distilleries are the perfect poster children.
People like to invest in their own community and support their neighbors. According to Localfirst.com, “$68 for every $100 stays in the community when spent at a local business. When spending the same at a non-local business like a national chain, only $43 stays in your community.”
In a recent article for Investopedia, Andrew Bloomenthal writes “Mom-and-pop business owners tend to have a vested interest in the community, its citizens, and the local economy. Consequently, they offer highly interactive and personalized services that large corporations cannot replicate. For this reason, mom-and-pop stores often win increased brand loyalty among consumers.”
Case Study: Julia and Alan Scott, Waterpocket Distillery, West Valley City, UT
When asked if local customers make a point to shop local, Alan says, “some customers are highly motivated along these lines. But that motivation is a combination of sentimental and rational economic thought. Local branding which stimulates an emotional connection with the customer is stronger. And neither of the above works unless the product itself seals the deal. We get a lot of support from our local economic development, visitors and tourism, and ‘buy local products’ agencies.”
“I know our customers appreciate coming to the distillery to meet us… as the owners, makers and the person pouring your samples in the tasting room. And converting these customers two or three at a time is the core of what our job really is. A mutual respect is at the core of the artisan’s job. Also, it is the best way to receive feedback from your customers, especially if your work pushes boundaries.”
Across our country there are distilleries owned and operated by sisters, brothers, multi-generational families, best friends and entrepreneurs who create a strong team beside them. Whatever your business structure, there is a lot to be admired about the husband and wife model. See side bar for a list of husband and wife distilleries across the country.